Underrated Vikings: John Gilliam

We’ve been covering underrated Vikings all week here at Zone Coverage. On Monday, we went over Jim Marshall’s productive career and on Tuesday, we covered the best run-stopping cornerback of the past generation, Antoine Winfield. Today, it’s deep-threat receiver John Gilliam.

John Gilliam might best be known as the first player to ever make a play for the New Orleans Saints, returning the opening kickoff of their inaugural game for a 94-yard touchdown.

Aside from that brief moment and a nominal mention on the Minnesota Vikings’ 50 Greatest Vikings list, Gilliam doesn’t get much notoriety in the national media or even locally. Gilliam was only on the team for four years, but made the Pro Bowl in each of those four years, at a time when the Vikings were among the best teams in the NFL — 1972-75.

In that time span, he led the league in total receiving yards with 3,297 and ranked second (behind Isaac Curtis) in yards per reception. He ranked third in total touchdowns (behind two players tied for first — Gene Washington and Harold Jackson) in that time span as well.

Even when including his two years prior to joining Minnesota (adding the years 1970 and 1971 to the analysis), he would still be the league’s leading receiver. A six-year time span where he was the leading receiver in the NFL, and even long-time Vikings fans are more likely to forget than remember him.

One Vikings fan who did remember him was Ted Glover of the Daily Norseman. When I asked him about Gilliam, he chimed in with a great characterization:

He was Sammy White before Sammy White. He was only around for a few seasons, and the Vikes offense was pretty much built around Foreman, but Gilliam was a guy that really stretched the field, and was one of the bigger deep threats in the game at that time. I could be remembering through purple colored glasses, but he was really fast, had good hands, and it seemed like all of his catches were for 15 yards, minimum, sort of the prototypical home run/big play threat guy for the Vikes offense back then.

Gilliam missed out on the 1973 Associated Press All-Pro team to Hall-of-Famer Paul Warfield despite the Viking earning 400 more yards than Warfield (907 yards to 514!), instead “settling” for an All-Pro award from the Newspaper Enterprise Association — just as legitimate then as the Associated Press honor but now a footnote against the AP’s presumed “official” count.

His 1,035 yards and seven touchdowns may have deserved an All-Pro nod above Fred Biletnikoff’s 802-yard, seven-touchdown excursion in 1972 as well. Dr. Z, Paul Zimmerman, selected Gilliam in 1972 for Sports Illustrated’s All-Pro team and he individually may be a more credible source than any collection of sportswriters.

Gilliam has had an unusual career outside of that four-year stretch with the Vikings. He had played with a number of quarterbacks right before they hit their stride. Billy Kilmer in New Orleans ranked 13th and 10th of 19 quarterbacks in passer rating. It wasn’t until a year after Kilmer was traded to Washington that he broke out — the same year Gilliam did in Minnesota, incidentally.

In 1969, Gilliam had the opportunity to play with a young Jim Hart in St. Louis. Unfortunately, Hart didn’t play well until… the same year as Gilliam and Kilmer played well, in 1972. Hart made his first Pro Bowl in 1974.

To get a sense of how poorly Hart was playing during Gilliam’s tenure in St. Louis, it should be understood that the reason Gilliam was available for the Vikings at all was because the Cardinals were so frustrated that they traded their star receiver (along with two draft picks) in exchange for embattled quarterback Gary Cuozzo.

After Gilliam’s Vikings tenure ended at the conclusion of the 1975 season, he found himself in Atlanta, where he was able to catch passes from (for five games) Steve Bartkowski… three years before Bartkowski would establish himself as a starter and five years before Bartkowski would make a Pro Bowl.

In his final year in the NFL, Gilliam played for two teams — for Chicago with Bob Avellini and for New Orleans with Saints legend Archie Manning. Of course, Gilliam’s final year in the NFL also happened to be the final year that Manning would play poorly — in 1978 and 1979, Manning earned Pro Bowl trips. In 1977, the year Gilliam played with him, Manning ranked 24th of 27 quarterbacks in adjusted net yards per attempt.

Gilliam’s misfortune of just touching the edges of great careers might have doomed him to eternal irrelevancy were it not for his ability to take advantage of Fran Tarkenton’s gift for manipulating the shape of defenses and Chuck Foreman’s tendency to draw defenders in.

It’s not as if Gilliam is the key weakness for the other teams he played for, either — he was fourth and fifth in the NFL in receiving yards in the two years prior to joining Minnesota, and honestly may have deserved a postseason honor for his effort in one of those two years.

The fact that Gilliam regularly outproduced his contemporaries during his time in Minnesota and ended his tenure with the Vikings as the most productive receiver of that time period makes it particularly odd that he didn’t gain All-Pro recognition once.

It isn’t entirely unusual that a receiver placing first or second in total receiving yards didn’t top lists as the league’s best receiver — after all, T.Y. Hilton led the league in receiving yards last year without an All-Pro award. But Hilton’s performance is a one-year anomaly among the last four years of play.

Instead, a more useful analog might be Demaryius Thomas, who ranks second in total receiving yardage over that time but has earned no All-Pro honors.

No one would argue that Thomas should have gotten them retroactively over Josh Gordon, Julio Jones or Antonio Brown, but he would probably be more deserving of such an honor in 2014 over Mike Evans if he had been picked. Evans had similar touchdown numbers to Thomas but 600 fewer yards, much like how Warfield had 400 fewer yards than Gilliam and the same number of touchdowns in 1972.

If Gilliam ends up getting remembered historically like Thomas, that’s probably fine. But his total impact on NFL play — while not game-changing like Bullet Bob Hayes or iconic like Raymond Berry’s — was great enough that the Pro Football Researcher’s Association’s Pro Football Historical Abstract ranked his statistical contributions as 32nd among wide receivers overall, just behind Joey Galloway and ahead of Mark Clayton, Chad Johnson, Biletnikoff and Charlie Joiner.

They’re not alone in placing him above more well-regarded contemporaries. Chase Stuart at Football Perspective has created a metrics that measures “adjusted catch yards,” which adjusts for league environment, quarterback quality and total number of attempts. In career rankings, Gilliam ranks 47th, just above Anquan Boldin and Andre Rison, and below Derrick Mason and Andre Reed. In this ranking, he’s still above Biletnikoff and Clayton.

Gilliam might not have been the kind of receiver to end up headlining modern highlight reels, but for a six-year period he was the most productive receiver in the NFL. That’s worth remembering.

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